Storyteller or Writer?
I’ve been querying agents, and the responses I’ve received indicate that my novel-writing isn’t up to par. I understand that — I have a full-time career and I’m not a writer by trade. But I’m a storyteller and want to share my stories with others. So…I began wondering if there is another way I could get into the industry, and I thought maybe I could collaborate with a successful author who liked my story and could help me improve it. I know a couple of successful authors, and my wild idea was to approach one of them and see if they had an interest in co-authoring with me. What do you think?
Working with a collaborator is a good idea for non-fiction authors, but not so much for novelists. It sounds like you have ideas and you’re a storyteller but you haven’t developed your writing craft. Unfortunately, the old adage is true – ideas are a dime a dozen. In themselves, ideas have no value. The value is in the way a writer is able to capture those ideas using the written word, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction.
Conseqently, a talented novelist wouldn’t need your ideas — they have their own — and would be unlikely to want to co-author in that way. So rather than look for a collaborator, you should probably consider a writing coach and/or editor.
I recommend you set yourself on a path to learn to write fiction over the next few months and years, and develop your own stories to sell, whether self-publishing or to a traditional publisher. Use a critique partner or group; a writing coach; and/or an editor. You should also go to a conference or two and take writing workshops, and read books on fiction crafting.
Of course, you could share your stories via self-publishing without doing the work of improving your craft, if it doesn’t matter to you how many people buy them or how people respond to them.
A third option would be to realize that your gifts lie in other areas besides writing, and be happy with that.
I suppose there are other paths, but this is how I see it.
Q4U: Do you have any advice for Storyteller? Or maybe you’ve been in this situation yourself? Tell us about it.
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Thanks! I’m storyteller. You all have given me some great advice today. I was hoping Jerry Jenkins read this blog and would offer to colloborate with me. Ha! I’m really not sure I have the time and passion it takes to master the craft in a sufficient manner. That is something I must figure out in the days ahead.
Thanks again for all your great encouragement and advice.
I want to be a doctor. I can’t do that without going to medschool.
Storyteller, I can help.
It’s hard, but it’s not as hard as you might be led to believe. And you can learn it. You must simply learn the principles.
Great advice, Rachelle. I can’t add much to it other than to recommend the books that have helped me the most in learning to be a better writer:
• ‘Hooked’ by Les Edgerton
• ‘Art of War for Writers’ by James Scott Bell
• The Write Great Fiction series by Writer’s Digest:
(‘Plot and Structure’ by James Scott Bell is my favorite of these, but they’re all good.)
I will add that I am totally weary of people saying they have a great idea and thinking it’s copyrighted just because it entered their brain (not that I do want their ideas since I have my own) or that it constitutes a written piece when they do not write. It’s like they think the idea is the hard part.
I think it is safe to say that writing a book is telling a story. Obviously that is what a book conveys: a story, a message. However, developing a story is not just mere telling it, it requires a certain level of skill.
I agree with what Rachelle advised you that you should hone your craft. Writing is creative as it is technical.
I recently discovered this wonderful site. This blog has prompted me to send my two questions.
Does my ‘personal thoughts’ journal at livejournal count as a website?
Second and more important question:
What is a writing coach?
I understand editor, copy editor, agent, publisher/publishing house, critique group/partner. But What’s A Writing Coach?
This is very candid advice. In life coaching, I help people align with their design. Within the writing profession, there are so many expressions – fiction, nonfiction, technical etc.
I have decided for myself that I am not a fiction writer. I am not skilled at descriptives. I accept my lack of interest and skill.
I tend to agree with Rachel. Getting someone else to ghost-write or partner-write what you conceptualize might not be as appealing as it might look, even if you can find someone to do it. To me, it would feel like someone else is carrying my baby.
I think most of us have friends or relatives like this: they know we are writers, they get an idea which they love and then ask us to co-write the story with them.
The problem is not only could it put our relationship with them in a precarious situation for various reasons, we simply might not be excited by the idea, and not do justice to their vision for the story.
However, just because the idea isn’t best shown in a book doesn’t mean it isn’t worth telling. The idea might be better as a movie script, or a graphic novel.
A writer who respects their craft respects that not all stories are the same. After all, who would want to read “Pride and Prejudice” as a comic book 🙂
Yeah. I seriously hate people telling me that they have this great, blockbuster idea that they want to collaborate with me on.
The idea never sounds very exciting to me: when it doesn’t originate from my own desire, there’s no passion there.
All I can think is what a drain and a demand on my time and then I have to think of a polite way to tell them to go write the darn thing themselves.
Great comments by all!
It seems to all come down to communication. The fundamental role of art is communication.
Of necessity, clear communication requires learning and practicing. Yet, at the same time, it leaves a lot open to the individual style of the artist.
My advice to “Storyteller”? Figure out what stories you want tell (genre), who you want to tell them to (intended audience), and what medium (writing, speaking, painting, poetry, music, …) fits your individual personality and talents.
Then pursue it!
No matter which choices you make, you’ve got a lot of work ahead of you, with a lot of learning and a lot of fun experiences!
I began as a storyteller much to the amusement of my parents. Apparently, at age two I used to stand on the hearth and entertain company. She said it was a challenge trying to get me to shut up.
Thirty years later I realized being a storyteller is a noble profession but not enough. Though my ancestors didn’t write their stories down, I’ve chosen to. It required 27 years of studying everything writing-related, joining online writer groups, and learning to be thick-skinned when it came to critiques.
But it paid off. I may be no Eric Lustbader, but I can write a good story. One day I may even write a great one.
If you’re a storyteller who would like to write your stories down, you owe it to yourself to learn your craft and become the very best writer “you” can be.
While it may be true that most novelists have plenty of their own ideas, it does not mean that a working writer will always turn down the opportunity to work with someone else to write his or her story.
I am currently working with an author who had a great story but whose writing was not so good. My motivation (yes, she paid me for my services) is not only money, but the thrill of transforming someone’s rough work into something good. My client could not be more excited about seeing her dream of writing a book come true. I am happy to be a part of that. She has also become a better writer in the process.
Don’t assume a writer will not want to work with you – ask them. The worst they can say is no, then you can simply ask someone else.
It might make more sense to ask to hire someone as a collaborator/ghost writer kind of thing.
Storyteller is obviously smart, simply because s/he knows that storytelling and writing aren’t the same. Good for you. The rest is your decision, choosing to learn how to write or to collaborate.
I’m working in the opposite direction. I’m a paid and experienced writer, but inexperienced storyteller. I’ve found some good people to guide me in crafting story, and don’t think collaboration is for me. But if the possibility came up, I would definitely consider it if there’s no conflict with improving my skills.
Or to paraphrase “teach a man to fish”: Teach someone to collaborate and they have one book, teach someone to write and they have many books.
As someone who’s co-writing a novel right now, my take on the situation is that it wouldn’t be a good idea. True co-writing relationships (where both people are actually writing, rather than one researching and plotting and the other writing) need to be entered in to by people of basically equivalent skill levels. I can’t imagine how frustrating I would find this experience if my co-writer didn’t have a strong grasp on the skills it takes to write a novel.
Clearly there is a desire here to tell stories, so I suggest honing your craft by journaling (at least 3 pages a day) and reading everything you can, novels of course, but also books on writing. Some of my favorites: Stephen King’s “On Writing,” Anne Lamott’s “Bird by Bird,” and Janet Burroway’s “Writing Fiction.”
I think everyone nailed it. Ideas are a dime a dozen so now that you’ve been given the gift it’s time you utilize it. I read a ton of writing books, wrote thousands and thousands of words that still sit in their documents, alone, not to be used – at the moment. It takes time and a whole lot of practice. The point is to get better with each draft, each story. You’re always improving the minute you set your fingers to the keyboard.
A good friend (and better critic) once told me he could hear the music in my prose. One of the best compliments I have ever received. And very intuitive. I had never connected my lifelong love and study of music to my writing, but after re-reading some stuff in that light, the cadence jumped off the page.
So, a bit of a musical analogy on this topic:
For the trained ear, it’s easy to tell the difference between good jazz and bad jazz. Yes, both employ grace notes and improv, but one contains a bedrock foundation of musical understanding…the other lacks this. Good jazz is like good storytelling. Compelling. Engrossing. The song tune may not resolve the way you expect, but it resonates nonetheless. As with an amateur musician, if a writer does not understand and employ solid craft, his or her work will come off sharp or flat – dissonant in a way the reader may not be able to describe, but fully understands.
I completely understand what story teller is going through, I was in the same boat, but there is nothing more satisfying than seeing your book come to life because you took the time to get it right. I wrote a novel in 3 months time and tried to re-work it for a year. I knew there was something I was missing so I hired a writing coach and have since learned that I needed to work on my writing skills. Now when I re-write a chapter I have seen what a difference it makes in the actual story and feel proud to share it with someone and absolutely love it when they say the love my story! Take the time to do it right, you won’t regret it!
It can be challenging for a “born storyteller” to learn the writing craft, but that’s really the point. If it wasn’t work, everyone would be doing it.
One of my favorite author quotes is by Louis L’Amour. He said: “A writer’s brain is like a magician’s hat. To get something out you have to put something in.”
He was speaking about both life experience and developing skill. His life and work is a worthy example of this. His early stories, published in pulp mags, and even his early novels are very much in the storyteller mode, first person, undeveloped supporting actor caricatures…but his later historical fiction works (ie: The Walking Drum, Sitka, Lonesome Gods) show accomplished craftsmanship.
In what is perhaps one of the great literary crimes of the past couple decades…after his death his kids went through boxes of stories Louis didn’t deem up to snuff. Then they had them “polished” by ghosties and published as short story collections “in his honor.” In an ironic twist on this topic, the stories were technically adequate, but lacked the storyteller element…
If Storyteller has a day job, and just wants others to be able to share his stories with others – a BLOG is a great way to do that! And receive feedback as well.
The self publishing route is also a great option for a fun little “side-venture” of storytelling and selling books.
I often support local Book Fairs, and see this type of thing, and even bought a self-pub book by a 15 year old. The punctuation was not correct through out the book, but I applauded her for chasing her dream at a young age, and supported her dream with my purchase.
Storyteller has lots of options, as long as he doesn’t want to quit his day job.
Read, read and read some more! Fiction, non-fiction, cereal boxes – any form of the written word. Then, if you want to pursue fiction, I wholeheartedly agree with all the above advice, most of all a critique group – they are a great, supportive place to start. (And if you find one like mine – fab snacks! Bonus!)
And did I mention, read?
I remember giving this exact same advice to Tim LaHaye in 1991 I was in his office in Washington, D.C. He shared with me that he wanted to write a novel about the end times. I told him it wouldn’t work unless he wrote it personally.
He ignored my advice, collaborated with Jerry Jenkins, and published the book—which became the Left Behind series—with Tyndale.
Now I pause a bit when someone tells me they want to use a collaborator to write a novel. I think your advice is right 95% of the time. But occasionally …
That’s so true! There are definitely some good collaborations out there. Storyteller should consider all the great suggestions in the comments here and keep searching for the right path.
Rare is that particular combination of skilled novelist and well-known person with a “novel” idea. A novel or a writing team that succeeds is even rarer.
For most of us, we have to dream and execute our own stories with as much skill as possible.
Steven James is a great story teller. He stands up and you can just see the action. I love to hear him talk.
His writing uses a whole different set of tools.
As a story teller he is a stand up comic. As a writer he is a chiller thriller. A christian Steven King.
So there is a place for story telling and there is a place for writing a story. To tell a story takes much more talent than I have. I want to rush ahead to the punch line.
With writing I am able to be taught to slow down, etc, etc. Of course it takes me several drafts.
A story teller does not have that option, not when he is in front of an audience.
In my opinion it is harder to be a story teller! Neither is easy-peasy.
I’ve also noticed that there are a few crafty writers who can’t seem to create a good story. This is a tough business, it seems.
There are many ways for a storyteller to share his stories. Most of them don’t involve writing. I’ve encountered people who could tell stories for hours, keeping everyone who could hear entertained, but the they were terrible writers. Don’t assume that just because you’re a great storyteller you should be writing novels. If writing isn’t your strength, then maybe you should focus on what is. There are game developers who tell great stories, but they do so through a game rather than a book. There are painters who tell great stories, but they do it on a canvas. There are public speakers who tell great stories, but not in book form. Tell your stories, but use the medium you come to naturally.
When I started writing creatively about 14 years ago, I had no idea there was something called writing craft – characters, a sense of time and place, show don’t tell. As suggested, I attended workshops, classes (even earned an MFA), found writing groups and critique partners. And, I started reading as a writer. Taking apart a sentence to discover how the author created that mood, revealed a character etc. was such an important part of my learning.
stick with it a step at a time and relish the journey
I’ll echo the advice given and suggest that Storyteller both read as much of his/her chosen genre as possible, while also seeking out a writing coach or perhaps a writers’ group to join. Having a great story in mind is all well and good, but you won’t get to tell that story without working hard to improve your writing ability.
As Jackie said, it’s often impossible to separate good writing from good storytelling. Pretty much every idea and story has already been told a thousand times over. A good storyteller is someone who can craft those story elements into a package that draws the audience in.
Keep writing. Keep reading. Keep learning. Don’t look for the quick and easy option. In the long run, you’ll benefit from your patience.
Every writer works differently but, for me, it would be impossible to separate the novel writing and structuring process from the actual story-telling. Often it’s only as I write that certain plot lines emerge. It’s part of the magic of fiction writing. I agree with the other comment advice. You have to settle down for the long haul and really learn your craft. There’s no substitute. I started out thinking I was wasting my life writing novels that didn’t achieve publication. I now see the opposite is true; they’ve been a crucial part of the learning process.
One of my very favourite of all bits of literature ever is “1001 Arabian Nights”, and that is a collection of stories in the oral tradition that were eventually written down.
The tradition of storytelling is inspiring, heart-filling, and a lot of fun… it makes me a little sad that very few people in the comments section affirmed this.
While I can see Rachelle’s point that hiring a ghost writer probably isn’t the first point of departure, I do think that the English-speaking world needs more storytellers. The person who suggested podcasting had a great idea. Finding a venue for story nights is another idea – those used to be so common but now there are very few; I could use some more of that in my life!
The good thing is that, since it’s a rather neglected field, there’s a lot of potential to be creative to find new outlets for storytelling. And maybe, someday, there will be a reason for someone to translate that into written literature, as has been done for the Arabian Nights.
Many of the author-clients I’ve worked with are at the same level of development in their writing skills — and hence, career — as the author Rachelle described.
The truth is, it can take years to learn the craft sufficiently well to create a publishable, marketable book.
But one way to shave some time off that learning period is to work with someone who can suggest big-picture strategies for improvement.
For instance, one mystery author I worked with was also a good storyteller, in that he had both suspense and basic storyline strategies in hand, but his technique was not sophisticated enough to carry the story he was trying to tell.
After several manuscript evaluations detailing the types of things he needed to work on, and after I did some strenuous developmental editing, he really improved. And went on to write a series of books that he self-published and marketed successfully.
This doesn’t always happen. But it can.
The bottom line is really whether any given would-be author loves to write — or not. If he/she does, then learning the craft isn’t onerous.
If not, then it really might be best to try some other pursuit, instead — like actual performance storytelling, which is closer to acting than writing (though they share overlapping characteristics).
All that said, the storytelling impulse is a wonderful one. The trick is to learn how to become skilled enough that (many) other people will want to hear our stories.
Spot on advice from Rachelle, Storyteller. I’m a freelance writer, which translates to pen for hire, but I wouldn’t take on the job of turning your story into a novel.
My work as a journalist has led to many offers of this kind, but when I have time to write fiction, I want it to be my own. I’m pretty sure every single published author feels the same way.
If you want to bring your stories to light, then all of the advice above is the way to do it. They are your stories, and they may be really important stories, so you need to develop your craft well enough to tell them or they will be lost.
If you can find the right person, collaboration can be a wonderful idea.
The two biggest selling indies writers on Kindle UK are written by author duos.
Mark Edwards and Louise Voss scooped a six figure deal with Harper Collins after their two co-authored novels took Kindle UK by storm.
We’ve opted to stay indie, but our first novel sold 100,000 and our latest is a second top 100 hit.
We are now not only writing as a team but also have teamed up with two other writers to write as a quartet.
Collaborative writing can bring many benefits, but Rachelle is right that an established author is not going to have the time or inclination to team up with an inexperienced writer.
That said, for indie writers wanting to break into the market collaborations can be a fantastic way forward. See my post at David Gaughran’s for why co-writing can pay dividends.
I’d like to add that the act of storytelling is an art, mixing performance and words – often music as well. If you meant storytelling in this more literal sense, you might want to check out the International Storytelling Festival website.
There are plenty of anthologies with short stories written by storytellers who then work with an editor to bring the work to a certain standard while keeping each piece focused on a theme. Many deal with archetypal themes that may not be ‘original’ but resonate with us because of their familiarity.
If I’m off-base with this response, I apologize. I read your question as someone asking about translating spoken storytelling to fiction and wanted to throw this out there in the event your question had been misinterpreted. 🙂
Good luck – and keep writing. You have something to share, it may just not be for a traditional market.
I don’t agree with the advice to self-publish. There is a growing movement by Independent Authors to raise the quality of self-published works and this is exactly the type of advice they are fighting against. The push to work with a writing coach or use an editor is the way to go. The best way to move through the process of improving your written story-telling skills is to join a writing group that will give you consistent feedback on how to improve your stories. Enter short story contests to learn how to get the little stories perfected before you move on to the harder stuff.
Amen, and AMEN! I could sing that chorus over and over!
What a great post. I just explored this very idea recently.
Like J Larkin (Above) I have found a string of novels lately that lack so much in the writing department. (I say that carefully because someone might say that about my writing.) However, it is true. I forced myself through the poor writing because the story line was good. Somehow those books made it through all the agent, editor hoops. Why? Could it be the story was strong enough?
I struggle with the same thoughts as storyteller . . . is it the writing or the story that hooks readers?
I am not suggesting that poorly written books get published due to great story lines at all. I guess my point is this – don’t give up Storyteller. Keep writing, keep learning and keep sharing your stories. You never know what might happen.
If you want to see my post you can find it at http://jodijanz.blogspot.com/2011/09/my-how-times-have-changed.html
Thanks Rachelle for sharing this post. It is fun to see the comments.
…now, if I could just learn to spell.
… I can feel the breeze of that written finger wave from here.
I have heard, that a storyteller… or a person who speaks stories but is not yet a full fledged writer, can best make that transition with the help of a
‘voice-to-text’ program. I know for a fact the a quite few self-help authors use this trick by speaking to themselves into a voice recorder, all while driving, walking or shuffling about, and then transferring that to the Voice-to-Text.
That is there preferred and proven system.
And, I am thinking of taking up the trick for my own creative genius self.
Am I the only one who thought perhaps podcasting? While I agree that writing a novel requires both writing skills and story telling skills. Some folks are just better at talking than writing. When talking a story we expect similar things as the written word, but we also listen to a story differently than reading one. Perhaps writing out stories is the issue, but stepping away from the glaring white page, and telling the story as if around a campfire, or to a friend might help…or might be just the thing!
This is very true, Andrea. Blogradio give a venue for this kind of work and can be broadcast on iTunes, or whatever. There are a LOT of people who would rather hear the story than read it — including the millions of blind people out there.
Aren’t there ghost writers who will take ideas and flesh them out for a fee? It’s no guarantee of a sale or anything, but, if nothing else, it could help “Storyteller” see how a story becomes a novel.
I’m still a mere author-hopeful (much like approximately 75% of the rest of the world, I’m sure) so I’ll respond more as a reader than a writer.
Many, many, many books in the market today have amazing ideas. The stories, the plots, the problems…they. Are. AWESOME. Read-the-opening-paragraph-and-immediately-purchase-from-Amazon awesome.
But I have seen a dramatic increase in the number of novels that do not follow through on these great ideas. Either the writing is painful or the characters are undeveloped or something else goes wrong that makes it clear the author did NOT do their homework, but looked in the back of the book for enough answers to get it half right.
This is not only frustrating to the reader (when one has only so much money to spend on books, one hopes the books leave nothing to be desired), but is bad for the author in the long run. There are numerous series which I will NOT be continuing because the first book was so lacking, and if the first taste is bad enough, I’ll avoid that author in the future as well.
So, all in all, my advice/plea as a reader is this: Don’t kill your story with impatience. Nurture the idea, practice, read lots of books similar to yours. Then, when you are ready, make it happen. But don’t rush it. And don’t give up.
Story telling is the art. Writing is the craft. Being a great author is just like being any other master artisan; you have to have mastered both.
Sorry for the overly long response, but I hope it helps in some way!
I have heard some storytellers are book fairs that were awesome. They weren’t writers, but they could tell stories so well.
Check out this link: http://www.storynet.org/ and knock yourself out. I wish, wish, wish, I could tell stories. But it seems to me to be very different than writing. Related, yes, but not the same thing.
It is so much fun listening to good storytellers. I hope you get a chance to do some of this.
Great advice. I’m not a writer by trade either, single mom and have three teens. I wrote one novel after 3 months of a critique group and shelved it.
Then I wrote another novel after a year of participating in a writing group, attending two conferences,reading several books on craft, and taking some low cost writing classes. That novel received great comments and I found an agent. Now I’m rewriting the first one and the errors jump out and strangle me.
It takes time, perseverance, and willingness to learn technique.You can do it.
I agree with your advice about perseverance, time, and willingness to learn. I used to think in terms of months (more like six weeks) when it came to writing a novel then seeing it in the nearest Walmart book section. I also thought that I already had the skills. All I had to do is take the time to write the darn story. The truth is writing involves a great deal of hard work and study. More than I ever knew.
I agree with what you said, Rachelle. I also suggest taking creative writing classes around the community and/or (like someone else suggested) read books on the craft. At first, the classes may seem tedious because you’re going to be forced to write about ideas that you might not necessarily be passionate about, but they’ll set the foundation for you so that you’ll have a strong enough writing-skill to support your ideas.
That’s what I did, at least, and I’m still constantly learning. Writing is just one of those things that you ceaselessly have to work on to get better.
As someone who’s been asked to write a novel based on someone else’s idea, I completely agree. Even well-developed ideas are easy. Novels are very, very hard.
The only reason I’d co-author with someone is to take some of the (actual) work load off of me 🙂
All of your suggestions are great–I would also suggest that the writer read a lot of books in her genre.
Part of storytelling IS writing. That is, the better you can write, the more impact the story has. So, yes, improving your writing is a step in the right direction as a storyteller.
On the other hand, I do pick up self published books with a storyline that is interesting to me. I know the quality of writing would never get published, especially by a traditional print publisher, but I’m glad I got to read the book. So self publishing is an option. There’s still a bottom limit, though, to how bad the writing can be before it’s unreadable. And be prepared for lots of comments (from readers) complaining about the writing.
Like Rachelle said, learn the craft. Understand the principles of plot & structure, then write your story. Afterwards, find as many critique partners as you can, preferably ones with a lot more experience than you. Listen to what they say without fighting back. Revise, then do it all over again.
In the mean time, read not only books about the craft, but also as many novels within your genre as you can. Study what makes each work: the plot, the voice, the POV, the tense, the characterization, and the pacing among other things. After a time, you will likely have taught yourself the craft.